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Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    On Helium and Chocolate


    Powerful Research Tools Shared at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting

    We love our jobs at Microsoft Research, and a big part of that is about how much we love physics and technology. And chocolate. Consider: if you place helium in a (well-made) bag and let it go, there is nothing to prevent it from ascending to the very edge of outer space; a free ride for a small payload using nothing more exotic than a canister of helium available for $39.95 at your local party supply store. The payload in our case is a GPS and a radio built on .NET Gadgeteer (more on this below), the purpose is atmospheric research, and the underlying technology is from Microsoft. This blog is about sharing our technology and tools with Earth scientists at their annual convention in early December in San Francisco.

    Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth
    Microsoft .NET Gadgeteer display at the Microsoft Research exhibit booth

    We set up our booth at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting exhibit hall in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The exhibit hall is an enormous space where universities, specialized companies, non-profits, and government agencies (such as NASA) were displaying their own exhibits in parallel with the massive intellectual swap meet going on in the poster and lecture rooms—and in the hallways in between. The underlying subject: how does the Earth work and where is our ecosystem headed? This is serious business, and we at Microsoft Research are trying to help get answers by providing support on the technology front.

    Exhibits at major scientific meetings are a great way to show scientists some of the powerful tools that are available from Microsoft Research, and so that is what we did, mostly one conversation at a time. One of my favorite aspects of working in an exhibit booth is the look on people’s faces after I’ve shown them some technology we provide for open use and then tell them it’s free: a scientist’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed astonishment is a great reward for years spent building these tools.

    Steven Johnston chats with visitors to the Microsoft Research booth as the weather balloon hovers above.“But where do the helium and the chocolate come in?” you might ask, a fair question. We spent a lot of time prior to the AGU Fall Meeting pondering, “What do people respond to?” because we wanted them to have a positive experience at our exhibit. Well, for me, chocolate and toys are good, and happily, our .NET Gadgeteer team sent their lead technologist and jack-of-all-trades Steven Johnston to join us from Great Britain. .NET Gadgeteer is a whole passel of rapid prototyping technology “toys” [think computer plus sensors plus radio—all modular] supported by a free software development toolkit. Steven's backpack was packed with .NET Gadgeteer devices plus a weather balloon; one quick stop at Ghirardelli and another at the local party supply store and we had chocolate for the booth visitors and helium to inflate the weather balloon. We were ready for business. (The balloon stayed safely tethered, though Steven regularly releases them into the atmosphere back home.)

    The AGU Fall Meeting ran December 3–7 with more than 22,000 attendees. Our (welcoming!) booth ran four of those days, during which we collected surveys on data challenges, handed out a metric ton of chocolate, and engaged countless stoppers-by with our ensemble of technologies. This growing ensemble today includes .NET Gadgeteer, Layerscape for data visualization, CLEO, DataUp, Bing Maps, FetchClimate, and more. On a whim, we also brought in an ersatz campfire to conjure up fireside chats, and, to our delight, these were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators (and Kris Tolle’s inspiration). Of particular note: Matthew Smith from the Microsoft Research Cambridge Computational Ecology group presented his research on improving Earth models via data integration—work that is vital to understanding and improving how our predictive models show where we are headed in coming decades.

    Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success, thanks to our scientist collaborators.
    Fireside chats at the Microsoft Research booth were a huge success,
    thanks to our scientist collaborators.

    To cap off the event, Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research Connections, gave a session talk on who we are and how we can help academic researchers. Tony’s presentation brought in lots of additional visitors, almost all of whom came away with a deepened appreciation of Microsoft’s collaborative work with the academic community. To get a sense of some of what we talked about, check out Getting Started with Layerscape and its many links.

    Rob Fatland, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Initiative Celebrates Industry-Academia Collaboration


    Snow fell across the United Kingdom on January 18, 2013, but it was not about to deter some of Microsoft Research’s leading visionaries from making their way from the brand new Cambridge lab down to University College London (UCL). They headed to UCL for a special day that would commemorate the deep and long lasting intellectual ties between the two organizations by unveiling a new initiative: beginning this year, Microsoft Research Connections will annually co-sponsor four PhD scholarships at UCL.

    UCL students and Microsoft Research visitors at DemoFest
    UCL students and Microsoft Research visitors at DemoFest

    These new scholarships will promote collaborative projects between UCL and Microsoft Research—and build on a history of collaboration in computer and computational sciences, including such major joint projects as 2020 Science, with Professor Peter Coveney, and Resource Reasoning, led by Professor Peter O’Hearn. Although UCL is one of England’s oldest universities, it is also one of the most forward-looking, as is evident in the innovative work of its students, researchers, and faculty.

    University College LondonThe scholarships form part of Microsoft Research Connections’ PhD Scholarship Programme in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), which has supported more than 200 doctoral students since its inception in 2004. The highly competitive program supports PhD scholars at research institutions across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in research areas ranging from core computing to biological and social sciences. Recipients receive half of their funding from Microsoft with matching funds from the university. As with all scholarships provided by the PhD Scholarship Programme, the UCL recipients will receive a three-year bursary and invitations to the Microsoft Research annual PhD Summer School in Cambridge, where they will learn about Microsoft Research Cambridge research projects, acquire key transferable skills, and share ideas with Microsoft researchers. All students are supervised by a university faculty member and co-supervised by a Microsoft researcher “champion.” In addition, some students may also be offered an internship at Microsoft Research.

    Andrew Blake, the laboratory director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, described PhD students as essential to research. He praised their willingness to try out new research projects and observed that “Working with them increases our ability to explore new ideas and contributes to the sustainability of the research lab.”

    Rick Rashid, the chief research officer of Microsoft Research, began the day with an inspiring talk on “Microsoft Research and the Evolution of Computing,” during which he described the growth of Microsoft Research over the past 20 years, regaling the audience with stories of how he has worked with product teams on all manner of projects—some of which have had a huge impact on users across the world. He then fielded questions from students and staff on topics ranging from Microsoft’s strategies on open source, to which developments in the pipeline at Microsoft are the most exciting, to how to manage research successfully.

    UCL scholarship winners—from left to right: Jan Kautz, Sebastian Riedel, Rick Rashid, Jade Alglave, and UCL Vice-Provost of Research David Price. (One recipient, Benny Chain, was missing.)From left to right: UCL scholarship winners Jan Kautz and Sebastian Riedel, Microsoft Research Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid, UCL scholarship winner Jade Alglave, and UCL Vice-Provost of Research David Price (UCL scholarship winner Benny Chain not pictured)

    At the end of his talk, Rick announced the four recipients of PhD scholarship funding and their selected projects:

    • Jade Alglave, Lecturer in the Programming Principles, Logic and Verification Group
      Weakness as a virtue
      (Microsoft Research Cambridge co-supervisor: Byron Cook)
    • Benny Chain, Professor of Immunology
      Experimental and computational studies on the human antigen-specific T-cell repertoire
      (Microsoft Research Cambridge co-supervisors: Neil Dalchau and Andrew Phillips)
    • Jan Kautz, Professor in the Virtual Environments and Computer Graphics Group
      3D Reconstruction of live scenes using multiple heterogeneous mobile depth cameras
      (Microsoft Research Cambridge supervisors: Shahram Izadi, Pushmeet Kohli, and Otmar Hilliges)
    • Sebastian Riedel, Lecturer in the Intelligent Systems Group
      Probabilistic databases of multimodal and universal schema
      (Microsoft Research Cambridge supervisor: Thore Graepel)

    The "Auto-Icon" memorializes Jeremy Bentham, UCL FounderA “DemoFest” was held after lunch under the watchful eye of “inspirational or spiritual” founder of UCL, Jeremy Bentham, whose preserved skeleton and wax head likeness, known as the “Auto-Icon,” sit in a glass case in the Cloisters. Among the living UCL luminaries in attendance were Vice Provost of Research David Price, Dean of Engineering Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of Mathematical and Physical Sciences Richard Catlow, and several faculty members.

    The atmosphere was buzzing with excitement as researchers in computer and computational sciences showcased their latest work to Rick Rashid and Jeanette Wing, the new head of Microsoft Research International. A spectrum of demos showed the breadth and depth of work at UCL across domains, from distributed multi-scale computing, resilient and fast networking in data centers, and interactive images on the computer science side, to behavior-change technologies for enhancing health, diffusion MRI of the brain, and patient blood-flow simulation for surgical planning on the health and wellness front.

    Alongside the research were teams of proud computer science students, who reveal their inventive spirit through their use of cutting-edge Microsoft technologies—from Windows Azure and Windows 8 Embedded to Windows Phone and F#. They demonstrated some truly inspirational projects, including apps and devices to tackle real-world problems, such as using .NET Gadgeteer and Windows Azure to create a keyhole surgery instructional tool for trainees in pediatric surgery. The brand new Try F# website was presented, with tutorials in financial computing provided by UCL, just a few days ahead of its launch at POPL 2013.

    Collaboration between academia and industry can run deep, and UCL’s research excellence has attracted a number of Microsoft Research’s senior researchers to faculty positions at UCL, including Byron Cook, professor of Computer Science; Stephen Emmott, visiting professor of Intelligent Systems; Shahram Izadi, visiting professor of Virtual Environments and Computer Graphics; and, of course, Andrew Herbert, former head of Microsoft Research Cambridge, who is a visiting professor in Computer Science at UCL.

    The enthusiasm, deep discussion, and display of innovative collaboration between UCL and Microsoft Research on this snowy day in January exemplify the best of how academia and industry can work together to change the world.

    Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA
    Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technical Manager, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA
    Nour Shublaq, Strategic Program Manager, UCL Computational Life and Medical Sciences Network

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Mobile Code Jam Rocks Vegas


    Top headliners on the Las Vegas strip might include Celine Dion, Penn and Teller, and Carrot Top, but from our perspective, they’ve got nothing on the Vegas premiers of such CCNC Mobile Code Jam stars as BlueWay and Fling-It. That’s right: during the second week of January, the top three submissions for each of the Project Hawaii and TouchDevelop Mobile Code Jam Challenges took the stage in Las Vegas during the 10th Annual IEEE Consumer Communications and Networking Conference (CCNC 2013), demonstrating their innovative applications while collecting prize money and basking in peer recognition.

    The main goal of the two contests was to encourage researchers and, especially, students to advance the field of mobile apps and services. And that they did, with innovative applications that ranged from games to aids for the visually impaired. Here’s the list of the winners:

    Project Hawaii Mobile Code Jam

    • First prize: BlueWay, an indoor multimedia navigation system, by José Fernández Gorroño of the Universidad Pontificia Comillas, Spain. BlueWay uses Bluetooth technology and Project Hawaii cloud services to turn the Windows Phone into an “indoor GPS” that can, for example, direct you from one subway platform to another, so you won’t miss that train home.

    • Second prize: Elves and Arrows, a fantasy game, by George Chen, Edward Lay, and Hui Min Lee of Singapore Management University, Singapore. Elves and Arrows employs gesture-based firing and compass-guided orientation to let your elfin avatar shoot arrows at opponents as you battle online.

    • Third prize: Lens of Reality, a text-reading application, by Muhammad Naveed, Qamber Ali, Madiha Qamar, and Farah Saher of NED University, Pakistan. Lens of Reality is designed to help the world’s 285 million visually impaired people by using the phone’s camera and photo storage capabilities to capture printed text and read it aloud.


    TouchDevelop Mobile Code Jam

    • First prize: Fling-It, a game that tests your ability to follow directions, by Robert Hemsley and Dan Sawada of the MIT Media Lab, United States. Fling-It utilizes the accelerometer and gyroscope on the phone, instructing users to execute various gestures, such as face up, face down, swipe right, and so forth. Multiple players can compete against each other, scoring points by following the directions precisely.
    • Second prize: Hungry Rabbit, a game that challenges your hand-eye coordination, by Jeevan Pokhrel and Indira Paudel of the Institut Mines-Telecom, France. The titular rabbit craves carrots, which fall from the top of the screen and must be directed by you to the voracious bunny. Players can compete against each other, with scores published on a leader board.
    • Third prize: RemoteBoard, a collaboration app that enables multiple users to share drawings on a touchscreen, by Yuhuan Du of the University of Texas at Austin, United States. Remote Board utilizes the Project Hawaii Relay Service to exchange data between clients, allowing users to share drawings or illustrations and work collaboratively—and to play tic-tac-toe.

    Congratulations to the winners and to all who entered the Mobile Code Jam. And just because the contests are over doesn’t mean that the fun is finished—not at all. You, too, can harness the power of Project Hawaii to develop Windows Phone apps that access a suite of cloud services, and you can use TouchDevelop to create apps on your tablet or smartphone— without the need for a separate PC. Maybe you can create the mobile app that brings Carrot Top live to your Windows Phone?

    Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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